Gary Cummiskey, author of Sky Dreaming, in conversation with Janet van Eeden

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Title: Sky Dreaming
Author: Gary Cummiskey
Publisher: Graffiti Kolkata

Review by Janet van Eeden

Sky Dreaming is Gary Cummiskey’s most accomplished work so far. In this volume his work takes a more introspective turn with the unifying theme of a profound existential questioning of life. This  kind of depth comes, I believe, from suffering through difficult times. There’s a world-weariness to this collection which takes it into universal territory.

With this jadedness comes a heightened sense of awareness, in a number of poems, that this inadequate reality is all there is: a sense that this world in which we find ourselves is it and there’s nothing of importance out there to justify our being alive. Paradoxically, this reality, this “all-there-is-ness”, is itself unstable. The only thing left is a dull realisation that there is no call for faith in anything, especially in the conventions of society. From “Bonfire”:

Pour on more petrol and watch the flames leap higher ... They’ll keep you warm on the night the drunken pastor tries to fuck you and a voice from somewhere within whispers: “From now on all words are a lie.”

From “Takeover”:

Five years old. The parents take him to the hospital. He doesn’t know what a hospital is … There’s blue vomit in the basin. The parents are not around. Something else has taken over.

In Sky Dreaming Cummiskey paints a stark world, one in which there is little hope. Its very bleakness, however, resonates and touches a universal chord. As such, it stands proud alongside works by Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Satre, who too experienced life as a series of alienations in an existential nightmare.

Q&A with Harry Owen

This is one of numerous chapbooks of poetry you’ve published over the years. I found your experience of alienation in the book very profound. Did you find the poems in this book – especially the first unpublished and more recent ones – more difficult to write than those you’ve written before?

Well, I think my poetry has always been fairly introspective, and subjective. An exception would be the collection Bog Docks, which consisted mainly of cut-ups, so I suppose they are a lot less introspective, or personal, than the others. My poetry has likewise always been concerned with an existential questioning of life, or rather challenging of generally accepted perceptions or ideas about reality, and most certainly challenging of complacency. Some of the poems in Sky Dreaming are fairly old – some of them eight or nine years old, so they span quite a long period of time. I have not been as prolific in writing poetry as I was about ten years ago. The inspiration is certainly less frequent, but when it comes, it comes in hard, vicious bursts. There are probably a number of reasons for that. But if I haven’t been writing poetry, I have been busy in other genres – writing fiction, and lately trying to give my artwork more attention. I’m not a trained artist and barely know the rules of perspective etc, but that’s not what interests me, anyway. I enjoy making art as play, and in some ways find it more rewarding and explorative than writing. 

Somehow I can’t help feeling that we writers do our best work only when we’ve been battered about a bit! Robert McKee, the screenwriting guru, says that writers can write only if they’ve had a terrible childhood. Do you agree with this or do you think this is artistic BS?

It is total bullshit. I don’t think one has to have “suffered” or had a rough childhood to create great art, or gain deep insights. There’s been this long tradition, at least in the West, about the suffering and tormented writer – there’s Baudelaire, for example, or Antonin Artaud and Virginia Woolf. Or artists like Van Gogh. To what degree did their suffering help them create great art? That’s an interesting question. In Artaud’s case I think it played a big role, but I’m not sure about the others. There must have been many suffering writers or artists that produced mediocre work, if not outright rubbish. I think there is a lot of stereotyping here, in the same way that there was once a stereotypical view of a poet being someone who died young after having writing a few volumes of anguished poetry about beauty and unrequited love while spitting blood into a bucket.

You explore the loss of innocence in a young boy when his world lets him down for the first time in “Takeover” (quoted above). You describe your first experience of being abandoned by your parents, in effect by being left in hospital alone to have your tonsils out. It was obviously a formative experience for you. Do you think parents are forever destined to let their children down and this is the natural order of things? Or do you think there is a chance that some parents could actually make their children proud of them?

The poem is autobiographical, but there was no really conscious sense of my feeling abandoned, at least not at the time. It was something I had thought about only recently, and I wondered if it had left a strong mark on me, leaving me with an anxiety about being abandoned. I have always felt a strong empathy for the outcasts of society – those on the edges, the margins, those who couldn’t make it, who didn’t fit in. It’s not that soppy Dickensian sentimental shit about caring or feeling for the poor. It’s a deep-rooted sense of identification. Remember the words of Dylan: “When you’ve got nothing you’ve got nothing to lose”? When you are on the outside, the rules of the inside don’t apply. You don’t have to bother, because you’re already lost everything.   

I can’t comment on the parent and children questions – it is far too wide an issue, and anything I say would be sheer generalisation.

This “reality” in which you find yourself doesn’t always behave in the way you expect it to behave. Have you always felt reality is finite but not in the way it is generally accepted? Strange things happen in your reality as you express them in your poetry. How did you come to feel that reality can’t be trusted? From “I telephoned God”:

I telephoned God
but he wouldn’t answer.
I had wanted him
to change the weather,
to make it less hot
for my ex-girlfriend.
I rang and rang
but instead of a response
came heat waves, sweat and
a poetry magazine from Ireland. 

A lot of my work has been influenced by surrealism. I first encountered surrealism as a teenager and its influence has stuck. In the past I have proudly announced that my work is surrealist, and I once even labelled myself a surrealist, but now I don’t want to be labelled anything. But what I often find myself doing in my work is challenging the accepted beliefs about what constitutes reality. As writer and publisher Pravasan Pillay said recently about one of my poems: it tears a tiny hole in reality, or at least in the general notion of “reality”. And when you tear holes in “reality”, you can get a glimpse of what is possible. So it’s not a negative thing, it’s positive. It’s creative. I’ve grown distrustful of absolutist views, and of the either/or mindset. If anything, my thinking is becoming – for lack of a better word – anarchistic, because I am becoming distrustful of all belief systems. Even language is not to be trusted. Sure, I love language and I relish its power and its ability to create magic. But language can also be limiting and deceptive.     

You also seem to experience the world as an outsider – a common experience for writers, I’ve found. Do you think this gives you an advantage over the rest of the masses who find their niche in society and live their lives out unquestioningly? Would you ever exchange the alienation of the artist for a chance to fit into a safe little niche? Why/why not?

I do tend to experience the world as a bit of an outsider, but I am not sure if this gives me an advantage over anyone about anything. Writers can be an arrogant bunch and I am not sure their creativity gives them a right to be an authority.

Is there any place that can truly be a safe little niche? I wonder. I admit that at times I could easily do a Rimbaud – you know, just stop writing, publishing and all that and so something completely different. The prospect of becoming a beetroot farmer or an Icelandic fisherman has its attractions. I’ve often admired Duchamp for intentionally limiting his output, unlike Picasso, who couldn’t stop producing. Then again, there is a part of me that wonders whether I make the decisions, or whether “it” does.           

You have written a few poems about the beat poets and have achieved acclaim with your co-edited book Who Was Sinclair Beiles?. You seem to be fascinated with these poets. What is it about their lives and work which attracts you so much? Does Sinclair Beiles appear in your dreams as he seems to do in “A Day at the Races”?

The beats were very much in rebellion against the conservatism of their times – the early Cold War era. They rebelled against conservatism in areas such as literature, art, sex, religion and lifestyle as a whole. The 1950s and ‘60s saw the rise of consumerism, advertising, mass marketing. If you worked hard and bought into the marketing mantras, you could achieve the American Dream – which was nonsense. But the beats sensed this; they sensed the Big Lie and wanted no part of it. Of course, by the mid-1970s the whole counterculture dream was over. For me the important thing is that the beats happened, even if it was a lifestyle that was inevitably doomed. But the Big Lie still persists.

While there hasn’t been much interest about the Beiles book in South Africa, there has been from other countries, such as France, the UK, the US, Greece and India. Through the book I have made new contacts such as artist, poet and publisher Gerard Bellaart, who knew and published Beiles, and has a huge archive of his manuscripts and letters, and the Indian poet Pradip Choudhuri. US poet Louise Landes-Levi is, I believe, planning to raise funds to get a tombstone for Sinclair’s grave in Johannesburg’s West Park Cemetery. Bellaart is trying to get Beiles’s name added to the plaque on the site of where the Beat Hotel stood, in Paris. A UK reviewer of the book reckons that South Africa’s neglect of Beiles is criminal – perhaps he’s right.   

Beiles has appeared in my dreams a few times, but I wouldn’t read too much into that. Other writers have also made appearances.

Do you have any hope that society can ever pull itself together and take care of those it is supposed to? Do you think this is one of the reasons you feel like an outsider to established society? 

Well, I don’t hold much hope for here in South Africa. There is just too much poverty, too much unemployment. It would be naive in the extreme to believe we could achieve socio-economic equality for everyone. But the fact is that the poor have been let down; no wonder there are so many service delivery protests. Of course there will always be criminal elements that take advantage of these situations to cause general mayhem and violence. But can you blame the poor? I get furious about still getting rates bills for a property I sold over a year ago, and I am pissed off about potholes stuffing up my wheel alignment and tyres – but hey – at least I own a car, I own property. What about those who don’t even have running water and electricity?

Whether I feel like an outsider or not has nothing to do with it.     

How do your poems find you? Do you always carry a pen around with you and jot down ideas? Or do you set aside specific times to write poetry?

The poems usually come at off-hand moments, usually when it is the furthest thing from my mind. Sometimes while cooking or exercising. Sometimes just as I am nodding off or just waking up, so I always keep a notebook and pen at my bedside. I don’t set aside time to write poems, to try and force them out, but it’s an interesting disciplinary exercise. Maybe I should. The poem “The Lovers” in Sky Dreaming was commissioned for a short film of the same name. I was asked to produce the poem in about three or four days, which I did, so it can be done.

Do you have a novel waiting to be explored at all or will you always use poetry to express your thoughts?

I have had a novel in mind for the past few years, but have never got further than working out a concept. I guess a novel needs planning, unlike poetry, which tends to come spontaneously to me. I do have a small collection of short fiction which Tearoom Books is considering publishing as an e-book. I am busy editing a short story at the moment and there is another I’m still busy thinking out.

This chapbook was published in India. Could you tell the readers of LitNet how this came about? And will your own indie publication Dye Hard Press keep publishing work?

I became friends on Facebook with the Indian poet and publisher Subhankar (Sub) Das, who runs the arts collective Graffiti Kolkata in Kolkata. Sub recently started publishing poetry chapbooks in English and he approached me. It was as simple as that. And I feel very honoured.  We should be starting up more similar ventures here.

Dye Hard Press will continue chugging along. It’s a paranoid world we live in. Graffiti Kolkata last year published an anthology of indie writing and art called The Stark Electric Space, and some copies that were sent to US contributors were held for several months by US customs. Parcels containing Dye Hard Press books, including the Beiles book, which I mailed to France have been opened by the authorities there.

What’s next from Dye Hard Press and when can we look forward to it?

Next up is an anthology of South African short fiction selected by Arja Salafranca, called The Edge of Things. It’s a special issue of my literary journal Green Dragon, and is 280 pages long – my biggest publication to date. It is currently at the printer and I am expecting a proof copy any day. It should be out at the end of April. Following that is a new collection of poems by Gail Dendy, which is scheduled for about June.   

Gary Cummiskey writes about his publications and interviews authors on his blogspot:


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